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Ralph Tyler, one of century's foremost educators, dies at 91

STANFORD -- Ralph Winfred Tyler, considered by many to be "the grand old man of educational research," died of cancer on Feb. 18 at St. Paul's Health Care Center in San Diego. He was 91.

Tyler, one of the foremost educators of the century, had been a visiting scholar at the School of Education since 1988, and was the founding director of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford in 1953, continuing in that role until 1967.

"In the academic world at large, the Center is regarded as Tyler's crowning achievement," said Preston Cutler, Tyler's associate director of the center and a colleague from Tyler's University of Chicago days.

Tyler was an education adviser to six U.S. presidents. Most notably, President Lyndon Johnson asked him to serve on the National Council for the Education of Disadvantaged Children. Later, Johnson also appointed him to the Task Force on Older Americans.

He also is renowned for initiating the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in the 1960s.

Tyler was a "brilliant, unassuming giant in the educational firmament, who is amused at being labeled a guru," according to Malca Chall, who did a 450-page oral history of him in 1987.

"His main legacy will be serving as a model of conscientiousness in positions of leadership," said Education Professor Emeritus Nathaniel Gage, a longtime friend. "He displayed great knack for integrating the initially discordant ideas of other participants. He was the prototype of the 'chairman,' both when he served in that position on innumerable committees and commissions, and when he was on the sidelines as a commentator.

"He had his finger in more important educational enterprises than almost anyone else in his long lifetime, beginning with the famous Eight-Year Study and continuing with the Center for Advanced Study, NAEP, and the System Development Foundation, among many others."

Tyler is remembered also for the personal qualities that contributed to his educational eminence. Cutler remembers, "He was personally very generous. He never saw a half-empty glass. There were situations where he could become critical - but it never had the effect of dampening someone's enthusiasm or self-esteem. He had a very robust sense of humor."

"I never wanted to be anything but a teacher"

Tyler was born on April 22, 1902, in Chicago. His father had been a doctor, but, Tyler said, "By 1898 he was making so much money, $5,000 a year, that he and mother felt that they were probably worshipping Mammon rather than God, and prayed over it and finally decided he had to give up medicine - it was too profitable - and become a minister."

Tyler grew up in Nebraska, the sixth of eight children (of whom only four boys survived into adulthood). He recalled a childhood of trapping animals for the dinner table and taking cast- off clothes from the "missionary basket."

From the age of 12, he worked in a creamery - first washing cans, then weighing them, and eventually working as a cream taster. While attending Doane College in Crete, Neb., where he received his bachelor's degree in 1921, he worked at night as a telegraph operator for the railroad.

He became a high school science teacher in Pierre, S.D. - "I never wanted to be anything but a teacher since," he has said. He received his master's degree from the University of Nebraska in 1923; his research emphasized the use of statistics in testing.

At that time, testing "was largely a statistical process of finding the questions that would give you a normal distribution."

It emphasized memorization of course content, rather than comprehension. Tyler's early work began to reverse these trends.

He received his doctorate from the University of Chicago in 1927. He served on the faculty of the University of North Carolina from 1927-29; then Ohio State University from 1929-38; and returned to the University of Chicago in 1938, serving as chairman of the department of education until 1948, when he became dean of the Division of the Social Sciences.

Tyler became the director of evaluation of the groundbreaking Eight-Year Study (1933-41) in 1934. The study was a longitudinal analysis of 30 schools and the careers of their students, sponsored by the Progressive Education Association. It looked at the opportunities available for young people who stayed in school rather than joining the workforce during the Depression. The study, which is regarded as a classic experiment in curriculum reform, found inequities in college entrance requirements.

It also urged that schools have a greater role in developing their own curricula, rather than have it "handed down from above," in Tyler's words.

The study is also credited with establishing the importance of evaluation in designing and implementing curricula.

In 1949, Tyler, a prolific writer, published his landmark Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction. The book, whose theories about curriculum reform became known as "the Tyler rationale," became a bestseller and went through 36 printings.

"Some people thought he oversimplified many educational problems and issues, and then they find themselves forced to come back to his formulations," Gage said. "For example, some have rejected his emphasis on the importance of objectives in developing curriculum and evaluation methods - and have found themselves eventually required to do what he had said is necessary."

"I never met a child who couldn't learn"

The Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, which Tyler helped found, was originally conceived as a five-year institution. Instead, it eventually became an ongoing "independent institution that would help universities everywhere," Cutler said. The center has supported nearly 2,000 leading scientists and scholars in its 40-year history.

"As director and member of the governing board, he fulfilled a critical role in determining the character of the center as a new type of educational institution," Cutler said.

"He made a lot of decisions in those first years that turned out to be very wise," Gage said. "Those decisions and ideas hold to the present day."

In 1964, the Carnegie Corporation asked Tyler to chair the committee that was eventually to develop NAEP. Before this time, Tyler wrote, "no comprehensive and dependable data about the educational attainments of our [young] people" were available.

It is the only national test designed to evaluate America's educational system, as opposed to the success of individual students within it.

In 1969, he became president of the System Development Foundation in San Francisco, which supported basic research in information sciences.

He held 22 honorary doctoral degrees, and was a member, as well as the first president, of the National Academy of Education. In his later years, Tyler remained optimistic about the future of education. "Look how many thousands of years our civilization has been here," Tyler told The Stanford Observer in 1990. "Why do you worry about 50? That's the way civilization is, it moves slowly. Look how much improvement we've had since our country was founded.

"You have to keep questioning things - but some way or other the world keeps going on." Tyler also was optimistic about America's children: "I've never met a child who couldn't learn," he said.

After his retirement, he continued a strenuous lecture and consultancy schedule, logging up to 200,000 air miles a year. (Some colleagues joked that he should hold "the TWA Chair in Education.") He was a visiting professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, where he was a consultant for a school-university collaborative project. He advised on evaluation and curriculum in Ghana, Indonesia, Ireland, Israel and Sweden.

His son, journalist Ralph Tyler Jr., wrote in 1988: "Dad is instructive in the way he is handling old age. He refuses to idealize the past and denigrate the present, a temptation to which many of his peers succumb. Of course, the past is vivid to him, since he has an excellent memory and a respect for the accomplishments of earlier times - but as a doer he lives in the present.

"There is always something useful to be done, even when taking the physical limitations of age into account, so he continues to live fully, keeping his focus on the objective world around him. Even the limitations are a new territory to be explored and conquered - or at least outsmarted.

"Is he a teacher? Yes, unendingly."

In addition to his son, Tyler is survived by two daughters, Helen Parisi, of Evanston, Ill., and Ann Fathy, of San Diego; and a brother, Keith I., of Columbus, Ohio.

A memorial service at Stanford is planned for late April.



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